I can't help remembering that the Massey Energy coal mine explosion was caused by excessive coal dust. The Mine Safety and Health Administration found that the company's culture of favoring production over safety contributed to flagrant safety violations that caused the coal dust explosion. Now we are seeing the effects of excessive coal dust on the rest of the miners' health.
"The autopsies of the 29 victims of the 2010 explosion at what was then Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine also show... 71 percent had the nodules and lesions on their lungs that signify the disease.
That's a rate 10 times the average for southern West Virginia, says Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who led an independent investigation of the explosion, in Raleigh County, W. Va., and reviewed the autopsies.
"What was shocking was the number of miners who showed evidence of black lung," McAteer says, "particularly among younger miners ... and miners who you would not have expected to have black lung."
An analysis of federal data by CPI and NPR shows that the mining industry and federal regulators have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the coal mine dust that causes black lung. CPI and NPR also found that the system for controlling coal mine dust is plagued by weak regulations and inaccurate reporting that sometimes includes fraud.
"This is clearly a public health epidemic," Laney says. "This is a rare disease that should not be occurring. It's occurring at a high proportion of individuals who are being exposed."
Especially shocking to Laney and others focused on black lung is the grip the disease has on younger miners and its rapid evolution to progressive massive fibrosis, or complicated black lung.
"From the patterns and from the severity, from the prevalence of the disease, this must be a situation in which the dust in many, many mines is simply not adequately controlled," says Edward Petsonk, a pulmonologist at West Virginia University and a consultant for NIOSH. "There's nothing else that could possibly cause this."